Wednesday, February 10, 2016

EDITORIAL >> A big win for district

Jacksonville-area residents voted Tuesday to raise their property taxes to benefit their new school district, showing once again their commitment to improving the quality of education and building new campuses, something the Pulaski County Special School District refused to do for decades.

Jacksonville-area residents have proven once again that they will reach into their own pockets to benefit their kids and expand educational opportunities, and, when votes were tallied last night, they had resoundingly passed a 7.6-mill property tax increase that did both those things.

The move to carve our own independent school district from the northern-most reaches of Pulaski County was like a relay race, with the torch being passed laterally to friends and also down through the decades.

The tax increase will raise $80 million for the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, which will pay for a $65 million new high school near Main Street and Hwy. 67/167 and a new elementary school near Little Rock Air Force Base. It will also allow for extensive renovations across the district and erect multipurpose buildings at four elementary schools.

Never has Jacksonville had so much in store for its aging school system. Under the incompetence of PCSSD, the city’s schools were lucky to get a fresh coat of paint or leaky rooks repaired.

Those days are gone.

Although JNP has an independent school board, since its establishment it has been under the thumb of PCSSD, but that will end on July 1.

The new district has a chance to build modern school buildings and bring academic programs up to par with other districts in central Arkansas. It will have the authority to radically change the approach to education.

Overtime, the district should have longer school days and extend the school calendar, as well as offer some of the most competitive teacher pay in the state.

School officials should not only strive for schools that measure up to Cabot’s, but they should try to measure up to ones in Massachusetts, where public schools are among the best in the nation. For inspiration, see what schools in Finland, which are the envy of the world, have achieved with better pay for teachers and a culture that accepts only success when it comes to education and teaching youngsters to become responsible citizens.

There are many people who deserve recognition for helping Jacksonville get to this moment.

We know the decades-long effort goes back at least to former state Rep. Pat Bond and the group she belonged to. We know it moved forward with her son, former state Rep. Will Bond, who wrote or updated the enabling legislation.

Most recently the baton was passed to the Jacksonville Education Corps and the likes of current Jacksonville-North Pulaski School Board President Daniel Gray and others, including interim Superintendent Bobby Lester, who, along with current Superintendent Tony Wood and Chief of Staff Phyllis Stewart, helped navigate the tricky waters of creating a new school district from an older, larger one.

We’ll miss dozens of names from along the way, but a sampling would include Dr. Greg Bollen, Jody Urqhart, Mark Perry, Pat O’Brien, Bishop James Bolden, the late Ben Rice, his partner in crime Reedie Ray, former Mayor Tommy Swaim, Mayor Gary Fletcher, Martha Whatley, attorney Patrick Wilson, Ivory Tillman of the Jacksonville NAACP, Merlene McGhee and others.

Both the appointed JNP school board and the current elected board have worked diligently to bring about the best district possible, reviewing hundreds of pages of proposed board and student policy and making difficult decisions.

And several overlapping groups, including Educating Our Children, Jacksonville World Class Education Organization and the Education Corps should be thanked.

Don Stewart and Winston Simpson conducted feasibility studies that helped move the dream forward, and both former Gov. Mike Beebe and former state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel help make it possible.

PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess also played an important role in advancing the cause, determining that a separate Jacksonville school district would help PCSSD achieve unitary status in facilities and spending long hours on working out details of the detachment.

The challenges facing the new district are no longer insurmountable. A new building program will provide students a place to learn and flourish. The district could become a laboratory for the rest of the state as Arkansas looks for innovative ways to educate its young people.

Thank you, Jacksonville voters, for your vote of confidence in the new school district. Better days are ahead for students and all those lucky to live in the district. A new journey begins.